By Patrick Appel
James Carse, who directed the Religious Studies Program at NYU for 30 years, has a new book out called The Religious Case Against Belief. Here's his definition of a belief system, which he differentiates from religion:
A belief system is meant to be a comprehensive network of ideas about what one thinks is absolutely real and true. Within that system, everything is adequately explained and perfectly reasonable. You know exactly how far to go with your beliefs and when to stop your thinking. A belief system is defined by an absolute authority. The authority can be a text or an institution or a person. So it's very important to understand a belief system as independent of religion. After all, Marxism and Nazism were two of the most powerful belief systems ever.
He doesn't believe in a divine reality but he also has problems with atheism. His critique of the new atheism is after the jump:
In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that's left out is the sense of religion that I've been talking about. Instead, it's an attack on what's essentially a belief system... There are several problems with their approach. It has an inadequate understanding of the nature of religion. These chaps are very distinguished thinkers and scientists, very smart people, but they are not historians or scholars of religion. Therefore, it's too easy for them to pass off a quick notion of what religion is. That kind of critique also tends to set up a counter-belief system of its own. Daniel Dennett proposes his own, fairly comprehensive belief system based on evolution and psychology. From his point of view, it seems that everything can be explained. Harris and Dawkins are not quite that extreme. But that's a danger with all of them. To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you're not believing in. Therefore, if you don't have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily... I wouldn't call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That's a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them. As a matter of fact, one reason I wrote the book is that a much more compelling critique of belief systems comes not from the scientific side but from the religious side. When you look at belief systems from a religious perspective, what's exposed is how limited they are, how deeply authoritarian they are, how rationalistic and comprehensive they claim to be, but at the same time how little staying power they have with the human imagination.
The rest of the interview is here.